Kristin Lavransdatter

by Sigrid Undset

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Jörundgaard (jor-ewnt-GAYRD). Manor and farm inherited by Kristin Lavransdatter’s mother. The farm is located in Sel, a central Norwegian region northwest of Lillehammer, where Undset herself spent much of her life and where she died. Although Kristin was born at her father’s manor at Skog near Oslo, she spends her early life and a significant part of her adult life at Jörundgaard. Jörundgaard and its master, Kristin’s father Lavrans Björgulfsön, who is deeply rooted in his lands, family, and the Roman Catholic religion, represent the patriarchal religious life against which Kristin rebels and to which she eventually returns.

Surrounding Jörundgaard are hills, dales, forests, and streams that Kristin enjoys exploring. Catholicism is so intimately connected with Jörundgaard that visiting a church is like traveling into the mountains. The church is also where Kristin’s arranged marriage to a neighbor’s son is to take place because Lavrans wants to join his and his neighbor’s estates. Troubled in heart, Kristin asks her father to let her go to a nunnery, where their shared hope is that she will regain her peace of mind.


*Oslo. Large port city on the southeastern coast of Norway where Kristin meets the love of her life, Erlend Nikolaussön at a fair. Instead of isolating Kristin from her troubles, the nearby convent of Nonneseter compounds them. The piety of convent life is no match for the passion promised by this knight of the north. Oslo becomes the scene of their sins and deceptions, though Kristin is eventually able to overcome the objections of her family to marry Erlend at Jörundgaard.


Husaby (hew-sah-BEE). Erlend’s estate, comprising thirty farms and homesteads, located about twenty miles southwest of Nidaros. Perched on a hillside between two valleys, its many buildings are situated above a lake. Though larger than Lavrans’s estate, Husaby has rocky soil and is not as fertile as the flatlands around Jörundgaard. For Kristin, Husaby’s deteriorated state contrasts unfavorably with the order and productivity of her father’s farm. However, through her dedication and hard work, she helps to cure Husaby’s ills and turns it into a prosperous inheritance for her seven sons. Plagued by guilt over her sins with Erlend, she also tries to restore her soul to health.


*Nidaros (NEED-ah-rohs). Now known as Trondheim, the historic capital of Norway on the country’s central coast. Located within the archbishopric of Nidaros, Nidaros contains a cathedral known as the Wonder of the North and the shrine of Norway’s patron saint, Olav. As a child, Kristin sees pilgrims passing through Jörundgaard on their way to Nidaros. Later, like them, she is awestruck by the cathedral and experiences true contrition at the shrine of St. Olav.

Later, with the death of her father and husband, Kristin no longer feels part of the young generations at Jörundgaard and decides to enter a convent at Nidaros. During her journey to Nidaros over the Dovre Mountains, she reviews her life and sees it in the light of God’s grace. She enters the convent at Rein, where she hopes to become a nun. When the Black Death arrives in Nidaros, the city and the convent become scenes of great suffering, but for Kristin these disease-ridden places become the means of her redemption. With a self-abnegation that was lacking in her early life, she cares for the sick and dying, and when the plague makes her, too, its victim, she realizes that her moves from place to place were not meaningless fragments or a disorganized story but the unified parts of God’s plan for her salvation.


Haugen (HOW-gen). Small farm in the Dovre Mountains...

(This entire section contains 702 words.)

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to which Erlend retires after losing his Husaby estate because of his involvement in a political plot. Uncomfortable with his subsequent role as the lord of Jörundgaard, Erlend abandons his family and goes to his Haugen farm. Though Kristin visits him and pleads for him to return, he insists on remaining on his “little croft” where he can be free. However, he does return to Jörundgaard to defend his wife’s honor.

Form and Content

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In the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, which is set in fourteenth century Norway, Sigrid Undset tells the story of Kristin Lavransdatter, from her childhood to her death by plague in 1349, while reproducing the historical atmosphere of that period. One of the novel’s main events, the conspiracy to usurp King Magnus VII (King of Norway, 1319-1343) by a group of his courtiers, is historically authentic. Although it operates within a specific historical-cultural framework, Kristin Lavransdatter at no time demands the reader to be a historian. Undset’s medieval characters are clearly defined personalities, and her aim is to explore certain permanent conditions of the human heart, such as love, loyalty, and grief, in relation to the social, political, and religious circumstances in which they occur. Kristin Lavransdatter is a product of her culture and her particular moment in history, but she is also a strong-willed woman who rises above these conditions to create her own destiny. Her character embodies the anxieties of any woman who dares to reject the familiar, comfortable norms of her society for the sake of the unknown.

Kristin’s first act of self-assertion is to defer her marriage to Simon Andressön, the man her father had picked for her, and eventually to break that betrothal to marry Erlend Nikulaussön. In her youth, Kristin submits to the passions of her heart. Kristin’s split loyalties are represented in the figure of the elf-maiden, a wild pagan spirit whose apparition beckons her in the woods while she is still a child, and in the figure of the crucified Christ, whose face seems to her not “mild and sorrowful” but “upturned and harsh.” Kristin’s boldness is evident in the manner in which she allows herself to be courted by Erlend. While staying in a nunnery in Oslo, she steals away to meet him in the woods and houses of infamy. She conceives Erlend’s child in secret and forces Simon to break off their engagement.

Undset does not exaggerate Kristin’s courage. Kristin’s courtship with Erlend breaks her spirit: She is fearful of her actions, she is guilty of having tainted her own and her father’s reputation, and she fears for her unborn child because it was conceived in secret. Part 2, The Mistress of Husaby, is almost entirely concerned with Kristin’s attempts to restore her own good name as the lawful wife of Erlend Nikulaussön and as the mistress of his manor, Husaby. An efficient housewife, devoted mother, affectionate daughter, and kindly neighbor, Kristin rebuilds her own sense of self-worth. Her relationship with Erlend is a tempestuous one. Kristin is angered by Erlend’s inattention to husbandry, and Erlend is angered by her complaining, proud nature: Both are tormented by the shady history of their courtship.

Ramborg, Kristin’s sister and a conventional bride and wife, is a marked contrast to her sister. The Cross, part 3, aims at psychological realism in exploring the internal and external meanings and values of kinship. In the confrontations between Simon and Erlend in which Simon reveals his love for Kristin, in the meeting between Simon and Kristin in which Simon refrains from telling her that he loves her, and in the confrontation between Ramborg and Kristin after Simon’s death, when Ramborg reveals Simon’s love for Kristin, the characters simultaneously express their innermost feelings and reinforce the necessary kinship roles, dues, and sacrifices.

Kristin Lavransdatter ends with the onset of the Black Death in Norway in 1349. Kristin passes from the domestic stage of her life to the monastic one in the section called The Cross; she joins the Rein Cloister at Trondheim, and her crowning act of self-assertion is to help the victims of the plague. Her husband and four of her children are dead; Kristin no longer prays to God for gifts for herself. Kristin Lavransdatter ends with Kristin’s submission of her will to Christ and her painful yet peaceful death as a thin layer of new snow covers the pestilence-stricken land.


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Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter is a medieval Christian romance with a moralistic residue to it; life is conditioned by the strife between the flesh and the spirit, and the necessary values associated with these two apparently conflicting paths. Although she followed the school of realism practiced by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and August Strindberg (1849-1912), Sigrid Undset achieved fame for her realistic treatment of medieval Norwegian themes. It was primarily for her novels about life in medieval Norway that she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928.

Undset was well read in medieval archaeology and history, but her medieval novels are not period pieces disconnected from the rest of history. She is acutely aware of the continuity of history, and her artistic vision seems to focus on what is common to humanity across centuries. Her medieval novels, moreover, are testaments to her passionate faith in the Catholic church as the only true church of Christ. The Middle Ages, in which Christianity and non-Christian practices existed together, provided her with the perfect religious, philosophical, and social frameworks for novels that dealt with the split desires of the human mind: desire for sensual union versus desire for union with God.

Almost all Undset’s works challenge the stereotype of woman as the passive erotic object; her women are passionate and eager to experience erotic love and are “erotic-subjects” themselves. Although her final thoughts on the subject seem to emphasize the frailty of fleshly love, her novels serve as interesting commentaries on the topic of the sexuality of women.

Undset also introduced the modern professional woman into Norwegian literature. In her contemporary novel Jenny (1911), a young, liberated woman painter with high moral standards falls in love with an older man who does not love her as purely and freely as she loves him. After a series of disastrous turns of events, Jenny takes her own life. This novel was much discussed in the feminist circles in Norway in 1911 because of its frank treatment of Jenny’s erotic life and because Jenny seems to devalue her life as an artist in her pursuit of men and romantic love.

Sigrid Undset was neither a militant feminist nor an antifeminist. She believed that women should be allowed to practice any art or profession or occupy themselves in any manner of work without losing the right to love and have a family. Undset’s novels are significant because they explore in great imaginative detail the dynamics of the man-woman relationship in all its permutations and combinations. In particular, the role of the woman as a wife and a mother and the importance of family are key themes in Kristin Lavransdatter and in many of Undset’s later works.


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Sources for Further Study

Allen, Walter Gore. Renaissance in the North. London: Sheed & Ward, 1946. This study contains an informative essay by the author on Sigrid Undset’s conversion to Catholicism at the age of forty-two, discussing its influence on both her contemporary-based and medieval-based works.

Bayerschmidt, Carl F. Sigrid Undset. New York: Twayne, 1970. This book-length study of Undset argues that it was the empirical side of Christianity that Undset emphasized rather than the dogmatic. A comprehensive biography.

Brunsdale, Mitzi. Sigrid Undset: Chronicler of Norway. Oxford, England: Berg, 1988. A comprehensive and wholly contemporary revaluation of Undset’s canon, placing her firmly within a Norwegian historical and cultural context. Especially informative on the often neglected minor characters in the novel.

Grenier, Cynthia. “Reading Sigrid Undset Today.” Crisis 17, no. 2 (February, 1999): 28-33. The Washington Times columnist discusses Undset’s life, spiritual beliefs, and conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Gustafson, Alrik. “Christian Ethics in a Pagan World: Sigrid Undset.” In Six Scandinavian Novelists. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968. Places Undset within the context of European and Scandinavian modernism. Shows how her Christianity differentiated her from other modernist authors but also suggests that the spiritual dilemmas faced by the characters in Kristin Lavransdatter have their counterparts in the modern age.

Hudson, Deal, ed. Sigrid Undset: On Saints and Sinners. Ft. Collins, Colo.: Ignatius Press, 1993. Essays about Undset and her works derived from the Wethersfield Institute, which holds annual conferences on cultural aspects of Catholicism intended to support U.S. Catholicism. The 1993 conference focused on Undset.

Leithauser, Brad. Introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter. Translated by Tiina Nunnally. New York: Penguin, 2005. The introduction to this first translation since the archaic, stilted translation by Charles Archer in 1920 provides background to Undset’s trilogy. The translation includes parts deleted by Archer for being too sexually explicit.

Lytle, Andrew. Kristin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. This loving tribute to Undset’s masterwork summarizes the plot and testifies to the book’s moral values and its enduring emotional core. Filled with a tender affection for the book’s central character. The most passionate criticism in English Undset has stimulated.

Naess, Harald S., ed. A History of Norwegian Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. Views Undset in a historical context with other Norwegian authors. Includes a section on Norwegian female authors.

Page, Tim, ed. The Unknown Sigrid Undset: “Jenny” and Other Works. Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2001. Analyzes Undset’s lesser-known works, such as short stories and letters; discusses her opposition to modern feminism.

Winsnes, A. H. Sigrid Undset: A Study in Christian Realism. Translated by P. G. Foote. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1953. This book-length study of Undset as a writer in the realist tradition interprets, among other things, Undset’s tendency to indulge in lengthy descriptions and analyses of mental states.


Critical Essays